The Siren is late with this New York Film Festival wrap-up, but she felt like she owed it to Carey Mulligan, if no one else.
Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)
Once upon a time the Siren took acting classes, and one day we embarked on a story-telling exercise. The idea was for the actor to take the stage and describe an incident from his life. His classmates would then tell him which parts they didn’t believe. First up was an earnest young woman from New Jersey--we’ll call her Angie. The Siren has forgotten most particulars of Angie’s story, but it began with a great deal of Boone’s Farm wine, which Angie said she consumed because she was young and foolish and “I thought you had to be drunk to have a good time.” The story ran through some mildly embarrassing hijinks. When Angie finished, there was a short silence.
Then, loud and clear from the back of the room came the voice of a guy from Tennessee: “We-ell, first of all, I don’t believe that you don’t have to be drunk to have a good time.”
And therein we have the Siren’s obstacle with Shame. She doesn’t believe having tons of sex is this big a drag. Porn--OK, maybe, when it reaches the point where it's your whole sex life. The Siren has known people who preferred porn to a partner. They became too put off by the fact that doing it with someone else involves mess and noise and exertion and flawed bodies--not to mention pre- and post-coital conversational formalities. Rich, handsome, single Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is addicted to porn, all right, but that sure doesn’t mean he won't go out and get laid with obsessive, addictive and utterly joyless regularity.
Director Steve McQueen must know many people have the Siren’s attitude, and he responds by daring the audience to find anything in his movie erotic, up to and including his lead actor’s traffic-stopping beauty. Much of the sex and nudity is shot from pitiless angles with the kind of office-building lighting that makes even the dewiest interns look like they have a case of stomach flu. The strategy reaches its nadir with a threesome, as the lugubrious score (the movie’s worst flaw) keeps sawing away to emphasize, "This is sad, this is dreary, so whatever you do, DON'T GET TURNED ON."
What saves the film from risibility is that sex-addiction isn’t its primary theme. Rather than perversion (actually, you don’t even get to see anything that qualifies as perverted, so if that's the selling point for you, consider this the Siren’s Consumer Report)--as the Siren was saying, rather than perversion, Shame is about near-fatally damaged people. Brandon is unable to connect with a single human being in one of the world’s most crowded cities. His trauma is obvious, but never specified--a good choice, since it would take a lot to explain a man this shattered. The two best scenes in the movie, consequently, have no sex at all. Both are shot in bravura long takes that enable the actors to show a huge range of reactions to one another. The first is Brandon’s attempt at a real date with a pretty coworker. The scene becomes a death-spiral of awkwardness, Fassbender showing that his character has only a vague notion of how to socialize when neither fucking nor the immediate possibility of fucking is involved.
The second is an extended fight, shot from the back of Brandon’s couch, between him and his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). She’s moved into his Dwell-ready apartment because her own life is also a mess. Now, you may recall that the Siren did not cotton to Mulligan in Drive. Well, here she was marvelous. She’s a perfect take on a certain kind of rootless urban girl, self-sabotaging her own desultory pursuit of a career and throwing herself at men who transparently don’t give a damn. There's a suggestion of incestuous attraction, but whatever Brandon's desires may be, at this point he does have one boundary, and Sissy is it. The feeling he has for her is as close to ordinary affection as he gets, and it’s painful to watch him provoking her into a fight, because it’s obvious why he’s doing it: She’s preventing him from pursuing his addiction.
The Siren can’t call Shame wholly successful, no way. But it has some extraordinarily accomplished acting, it's heartfelt and sometimes moving. Uneven efforts like this one can be more interesting to watch and discuss than many more coldly efficient products.
The Kid With the Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2011)
The Siren got one lovely moment out of the NYFF press conferences, when the Dardenne brothers came onstage to discuss The Kid With the Bike, the story of a friendless boy and his frantic search for belonging. Someone asked about the use of music, and one brother said they hadn’t used any before. The Kid, however, uses a short passage from the Emperor Concerto at several points, as when the title character Cyril (Thomas Doret) is falling miserably asleep. They thought of the music, said M. Dardenne, as a caress: “It’s what Cyril is missing in his life, which is love.” In that declaration is all the power of this movie. Doret has a pugnacious face that could be easily cast as the cafeteria bully, and the character is a volcanically difficult little brat, stubborn and defiant, constantly on the move, usually in the direction of trouble. But from the first moments the Dardennes show why this unlovable child desperately needs love, as he tries to contact his indifferent father, and later is deceived by a charismatic young criminal. In the world the Dardennes create, so urgent and universal is the hunger for affection that when Cyril locks his arms around a stranger, merely to prevent his minders from taking him away, it has the power to involve the stranger in the boy’s life forever. Deeply emotional, and a beautiful film.
Here the Siren offers her ranking of the 15 films she saw at NYFF 2011. The top three get her very strongest endorsement; the next four are highly recommended; the next five are worthwhile, with reservations. The Siren endorses the bottom three only for those with a passion for the directors or for Marilyn Monroe.
This Is Not a Film
The Kid With a Bike
You Are Not I
Woman With Red Hair
The Loneliest Planet
A Dangerous Method
The Turin Horse
My Week With Marilyn
We Can’t Go Home Again